On the Trail of the Wild... and Wily... Chile Pepper For some people, chile peppers are wild enough when they're encountered in southwestern cooking. But Scott Simon and crew recently searched fruitlessly for chiles growing wild in the Sonoran desert.
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On the Trail of the Wild... and Wily... Chile Pepper

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On the Trail of the Wild... and Wily... Chile Pepper

On the Trail of the Wild... and Wily... Chile Pepper

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

What would you do to see wild chili peppers? Well, we set off on a wild ride with Kevin Stahl, executive director of Native Seed Search in Tucson, who brought us out to Arizona's Wild Chile Botanical Reserve.

Mr. KEVIN STAHL (Native Seed Search): It gets a lot easier after a bit here.

SIMON: Mr. Stahl and Native Seeds urged the creation of this reserve for the wild chiltepine chili, a small, red, dastardly and delightfully hot fruit that's about as small as a ladybug that you put into enchiladas, eggs, even ice cream.

(Soundbite of tires crunching)

SIMON: This stretch of the Sonoran Desert between Tucson and the Mexican border is the farthest north that this little chili grows. That's why Native Seeds is trying to protect it.

Mr. STAHL: In the past, the native people would come and collect them. Ranchers...

SIMON: On foot.

Mr. STAHL: ...know about it and have collected it to add to their pots of chili beans. The major commercial harvest of chiltepines happens in Sonora, Mexico, just south of us.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. STAHL: Yeah, actually, I think stopping here would be fine.

(Soundbite of car doors opening)

SIMON: Well, tell us what we're looking at now.

Mr. STAHL: Well, we're standing in the middle of this broad, green, lushly vegetated amphitheater of pretty wild-looking mountains with cliffs and canyons. It's the farthest northern reach of these plants. The mountain range that we're standing in the middle of is the Tumacacori Mountains, which roughly translates in an ancient dialect of O'odham as `place where the wild chilis grow.' The local town is also called Tumacacori and one of the early Spanish missions also has that name from the mountains.

SIMON: So this is the place where the...

Mr. STAHL: So it was widely recognized at one time as the place where you could go and get chilis.

SIMON: Native Seed Search has collected and cataloged seeds native to the American Southwest for the past 10 years. Many thought these seeds and their special tastes and healing properties had just disappeared. Native Seeds has been able to track down seeds and plants, and now maintains a farm where varieties of beans, greens and peppers that were thought to be extinct now grow anew.

(Soundbite of people walking)

Mr. STAHL: Kevin Stahl kept telling us that the chiltepines must be just over that ridge, or down in the ravine. We'd arrived in city shoes, expecting to see cherry red fields of gently swaying chili peppers.

(Soundbite of rocks moving around)

Mr. STAHL: So this is a little bit of a hike, huh?

SIMON: What are all these things in my leg?

Instead, there's just rocks, brush and a few lonely looking tumbleweeds blowing past.

(Soundbite of people walking)

SIMON: Our chiltepine search party scoured the crags and crevices for about half an hour and found, to use an old native word, bupkis, not a single chiltepine.

(Soundbite of people walking)

SIMON: If you have to go through this to find the chili, doesn't that raise the question: Isn't it much easier to grow them in areas where people can reach them and cultivate them?

Mr. STAHL: Absolutely. And if you like the taste of chiltepines, there's no reason why you can't grow them in your back yard. Because it's a bird-spread seed, the birds have spread them throughout these metropolitan areas, so when I go to yard sale, I see them growing in someone's yard, and they don't know what they are.

SIMON: But yet at the same time you think it's important that people still continue to look for them out here, too.

Mr. STAHL: We want to understand the plant. It's an economically important plant. It's still commercially wild-harvested. And this is as good a place as any for us to study how it interacts with the animals and with the other vegetation and the landscape.

SIMON: We need to remind ourselves it's not just cultivated for commercial production but...

Mr. STAHL: And it doesn't cultivate very easily. The cultivated chilis taste different than the wild-harvested ones. Well, Scott, I didn't find any chiltepines here, but I brought some with me because they're a great thing to have in the desert. They make you sweat and that will cool you down. So even though it's something hot, eating it will help you get cool here.

SIMON: Will it scare the gnats away?

Mr. STAHL: Possibly.

SIMON: Yeah, possibly. I can see through that. All right. Here it goes.

Mr. STAHL: Your face is turning red and you're grimacing, and you're looking for water. Now...

SIMON: I'm not going to let myself have it until it's down. Ah. Ah. May I?

Mr. STAHL: You may, but water won't help. Chiles are a fatty acid and water just spreads it around.

SIMON: I got it.

Mr. STAHL: You need something with oil or alcohol.

SIMON: Thank you very much.

Mr. STAHL: Here's a granola bar that should help. Chile first-aid.

SIMON: Granola bar, hmm, yum.

Mr. STAHL: Anything like bread or tortilla chips or even, better yet, beer will help you if you've...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. STAHL: ...taken something beyond your normal capacity.

SIMON: I liked it. And now that I've swallowed it, it's having the most amazing effect on my insides. Very good. Thank you.

Mr. STAHL: Good. You're welcome.

SIMON: Thanks for lunch.

Kevin Stahl, executive director of Native Seed Search in Tucson. You can see pictures of Arizona's Wild Chile Botanical Area and learn more about Native Seeds on our Web site, npr.org.

Oh ...(unintelligible).

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